My father always said he had a book inside him.
As a child I had no idea what he meant, naturally being far more preoccupied with Meccano and tadpoles, although I remember well that wistful look of his from the desk in his study through the window to the shrubbery. He laboured on his writing in that dusty, gloomy room bisected only occasionally by a ray of sunshine, the shadow of the willow outside dancing upon his balding pate. Piles of paper with scrawled handwriting lay scattered about the place, presumably unfinished work, I now surmise. This is one of those memories from childhood that stay with us even though we do not know why. I recall in particular his expression beneath that anodyne suburban light, one of longing, something between determination and disappointment worn uncomfortably like an ill-fitting mask upon a face otherwise mostly jovial and ruddy. I know now that he must have been in pain.
However, it was only much later, when I was called to the hospital to discuss the peculiarities of his case with the consultant surgeon, the august Mr Ferguson, that I was to find out what my father had really meant.
He had a book inside him. Literally.
“We call it tumor litterae, very rare,” Ferguson informed me after a formal preamble. “Sadly we got to him too late.”
“Yes. I’ve only ever seen one case before, so I’m thinking of publishing a paper, about your father ... with your permission, of course. That’s why I asked you in. You’ll need to sign ...”
The surgeon was getting ahead of himself. It was clear from his confident manner, his bushy eyebrows curling upwards in an arc that signalled a certain disdain for mere mortals, that he spared the great unwashed scientific why and wherefore and cut to the plebeian chase. But I wanted the full story. Chapter and verse. Something inside egged me on.
“Doctor, I’ve no idea what you’re talking about. Please explain.”
Ferguson tried to conceal a weary sigh, although I heard it at once.
“The tumour. It was a book. I’ve kept it.”
He reached down behind his desk and I heard the hollow suction of a bottom drawer opening before he straightened and placed a specimen jar in front of me with a triumphant smile.
Of course, I was taken aback. There, amid yellowing formaldehyde, was suspended a small, leather-bound volume, about the size of a traditional missal.
“Incurable, unfortunately,” continued Ferguson. “Has to be surgically removed otherwise it’s terminal. We don’t yet know what causes it. I’d like to conduct some tests. We’ll have to dissect the thing, inevitably.”
I was still not thinking straight and agreed to everything, as one does when overwhelmed by sudden complexity in the presence of someone who appears to understand it. But fortunately the child in me remained stubborn enough to stamp his foot, albeit only gently.
“Can I read it first?”
Ferguson squinted with apparent irritation. He did not wish to share his specimen, after all, but soon relented. I suspect he knew that whatever he published at the end of the day would be so original, so unusual, that it would assure him his place in the pantheon.
We agreed that I would be provided with a photocopy which, under the circumstances seemed appropriate. But as I was leaving, another question came to mind. I hovered at the door.
“What happened? In the other case? You said there was another.”
“Oh, yes,” replied Ferguson, already busying himself with paperwork, “we cut it out just in time. Managed to publish it, the lucky fellow. Bestseller. He rolled in a couple of years later fit as a fiddle and gave me a signed copy. I dipped into it on holiday in Cornwall. Jaunty tale, mostly biographical as far as I could tell.”
We buried my beloved father, with considerable appreciation and many tears, beneath a willow in Hampstead. We had a tasteful scroll carved into the headstone with the epitaph, “He had a book inside him”.
It was only later, now in fact as I sit and read the photocopy of his unfinished masterpiece in my peaceful studio bathed in light, that I can fully understand what he was getting at. It is probably congenital, this condition, for I have felt growing inside me an overpowering urge to write.
I suspect I shall eventually have to make an appointment with Mr Ferguson.